Saturday 8 June was the start of National Bike Week 2019. What a great opportunity for a post on my Facebook page encouraging people to get out on their bikes, I thought. I’ll say that I’m planning to use my bike every day this week.
That gave me pause, though – because if I was going to make a public declaration like that, I needed to actually do it! There’s a whole world of difference between exhorting other people to do something different for their self-care, and actually doing it myself.
I’d bought a new bike a couple of months earlier after deciding to try living without a car, thinking I’d use a lighter-weight bike more as a means of transport. But WHY hadn’t I used it as much as I’d hoped – even though I liked the idea, and the new bike? What was getting in the way of me doing that? I decided to make it A Project. I thought perhaps if I could track each day, I might learn something – from looking at the things that motivated me to use my bike, or the things that put me off.
And so it began.
The change-my-life bike challenge
I noticed there was sawdust on my bike seat……woodworm in the shed roof! I decided to cycle to the nearest place where I could buy woodworm treatment, about 4 miles away. Oh, but first I realised I needed to change the toe-clips on my bike, the ones the bike shop had put on were useless………oh and it looked like it was going to rain…….and where did I put my pannier? At least the bike locks were handy, as I hadn’t put them away…..
It started raining while I was out, and I got soaked. But…..I had plenty of time, it was a Saturday, I could get changed when I got home, I was already in suitable clothes for cycling and crucially there was the novelty feeling of having decided to make this ‘a challenge’.
I suggested to my partner that we ride to a nearby town to see an exhibition but he was feeling tired, so instead I decided to get a quick ride in alone and call in at the Co-op for some shopping on the way back. I was put off a little by thinking I ‘should’ be doing something with my partner because it was the weekend, but I felt full of beans and wanted the exercise – and once again there were no time pressures.
It was a beautiful morning and I had the familiar experience of flying along on the outer leg with the wind behind me (and then having to really push into the westerly wind on the way home).
Oh-ho! Back to real life, how do I incorporate cycling into the working week? I had a morning meeting in Edinburgh to see a room I might want to rent, so decided to cycle in – a round trip of around 23 miles. I was somewhat nervous about this as I hadn’t cycled in the city for years and the prospect of navigating traffic made me anxious. I was worried about arriving late and also about getting sweaty and looking unprofessional!
On the other hand, I had a flexible schedule that day so could leave plenty of time, and after researching routes found that much of the ride could be done on cycle paths. It seemed like a good opportunity for a ‘test’ commute – as it wasn’t a client appointment it didn’t matter if I was a bit windblown!
An unexpected drama came a third of my way in when my saddle came loose, and I didn’t have the necessary tool to sort it out. After swithering about whether to lock my bike somewhere nearby and take the bus the rest of the way I decided to carry on, getting on and off rather gingerly at junctions. I was heartily glad my route involved few busy roads. After my meeting I headed to the nearest bike shop where they kindly fixed my saddle free of charge and I had a much more comfortable ride home.
An easy day – a quick dash to the shop to get a sandwich for my lunch, a round trip of not much over a mile. It seemed a bit of a faff to get the bike out of the shed for such a short journey, but crucially, having been using it every day, the operation of getting everything together was pretty quick. I was wearing skinny jeans so no need to change clothes for this short ride, and I was there and back with plenty of time to sit and eat my lunch!
The weather was a bit rubbish but I had something to take to the post office. To be honest I might not have made myself do it on foot because of time required in a rather busy day. It was a lesson that I could get an errand out of the way really quickly in less than 15 minutes by using my bike.
I learned I could ride in wellies – after a fashion. It was a really miserable day, I had no commitments outside home and there is no way I would have got my bike out had it not been for having set myself the task of doing it. Once again a quick dash to the shop, but I felt a bit lost about the pointlessness of ‘the bike challenge’ as a project.
I was very conscious that I was just getting my bike out for the sake of it, and having to look for a reason to do so. However, I cycled to the library – only a mile or so away – and actually this was probably a perfect example of cycling making life easier. The journey on foot was a little too far to squeeze into my working day, but on a bike it was much quicker and I could pop the books into my pannier rather than having to carry them. I might not have finally got round to using my library without the bike challenge.
So what did I learn from setting myself the target of using my bike every day?
Make it easy.
This was my absolute No. 1 takeaway from this experiment, that I was reminded of every day. In order to change how you do things, you need to make it easy for yourself. We’d already changed the way we stored our bikes so that they were easy to get in and out of the shed quickly. In addition I’ve moved my pannier from an inaccessible shelf in a cupboard to near the back door ready for use and the bike locks are also on a shelf handy to grab. Now I can get my bike out and ready to use in a little over a minute.
Plan and prepare.
Don’t assume it is going to be easy until you’ve established a routine! So, I need to think about what to wear when I’m going to meetings, and I need to factor in the time until I get the hang of how long it takes to get places. Wearing clothes that mean I can quickly jump on my bike AND be appropriately dressed for work (leggings are my friend here) makes life easier.
Don’t compare apples and pears.
……….or bus journeys and bike journeys. You can learn to enjoy a different way of doing things. Particularly with the ride into Edinburgh I felt conscious of how long it was taking me. But the second time I did this run I was able to enjoy the opportunity of being out and getting exercise rather than focusing on whether I was using my time ‘efficiently’ (and actually traffic snarls aren’t a factor on a bike path).
This applies to other behaviour changes too; you need to acknowledge what you’ll lose by changing what you do, but you can also appreciate what you’ll gain.
Some investments are worth it.
It felt like an extravagance to buy a new bike – but a lighter bike made it easier for me to use it more (although things have improved, in the UK we have bike paths that involve carrying your bike up the steps of a bridge over a railway, for example).
If you can afford it, it’s worth spending money on things that will facilitate you changing what you do; e.g. buying a good pannier rack meant that it’s simple for me to carry stuff comfortably on my bike.
Ask for help.
Flippin’ heck, I can never be reminded of this one too often….. Only my saddle almost falling off pushed me into it; but of course cycling is a friendly world – and when I took my bike into Edinburgh Bike Co-op they graciously sorted it out instantly and free of charge. What’s the worst that could have happened? They might have said no, or have charged me a few quid. Big deal.
It takes time.
If you do something enough times, it forms a habit. But you HAVE to do it enough times, in order to remind yourself that this is how life is now. I decided at the end of the week to keep the ‘use-it-every-day’ practice going for another week to try and develop a routine. Since then other things have happened and I’ve been away, but I notice I AM using my bike more as it’s higher up my consciousness.
In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking about why it’s difficult to change habits and behaviours, and – crucially – offering some tips on how to make and maintain changes.
If you’re interested in support for making changes, or just have questions, please get in touch with me through my contact page.
Pause for a minute. Imagine that you’re in a wood. It’s quite light and open, with space between the trees……those beautiful, spreading oak trees, with great branches like arms that reach out as if to enfold you in a safe embrace.
The sun filters through the leaves, dappling the ground below, and playing on your face. As you move you pass through shafts of light. You can feel its warmth. Pay attention to the sounds you can hear – the rustle of the wind moving the branches of the trees, the twittering of song from birds, invisible, in the canopy above you. As you walk along, you hear the scrunch of twigs and fallen leaves under your feet.
What’s that smell? Fresh and musty at the same time – damp earth and vegetation; perhaps it rained earlier or there was a heavy dew. And then behind that, a sweet perfume that comes and goes – you see a carpet of blue under the trees. Thousands of bluebells, their delicate smell massed together to reach your nose. Just take a moment to see, hear, feel all of that wonderful space of nature, to let it sink in to you. Let it feed your soul. Take a moment – before you come back.
When I was thinking about writing this blog, I imagined how I would describe why I like to walk outside. Everything I thought of seemed rather worthy……walking as something I ‘should’ be doing, part of that ‘must get your 5-a-day’ mentality. But when I thought of a recent walk – outlined above – I recalled all the myriad, tiny, experiences that happened in the moment, which combined to lift my spirits and nourish my soul.
That particular walk was an immersion in nature. Spaces like that are available to most of us, though to really get away from it all can be a challenge, especially if you live in a city or don’t have a car. But that doesn’t mean we can’t experience nature while walking – even in the town. In this blog I look at some of the ways in which walking, and walking in nature, can benefit your mental health.
7 ways in which walking can help your mental health
1. Walking helps your whole body
The most fundamental reason for walking helping your mental health, is that it helps your physical health. Our mind and body are intertwined – literally, given that the mind rests within the body.
I mentioned in my last blog (10 Stress Management tips) about the benefits of walking if you suffer from stress symptoms. Walking can help release some of the fight/flight hormones that build up when you’re feeling stressed. The simple act of moving in this way helps release the tension in muscles that may have become hunched and stiff. As you start to become more physically active, you will feel fitter and stronger, which can have the knock-on effect of improving how you feel about yourself. Remember, though – you are not competing against anyone. This is about you feeling better for your own sake.
2. Walking can reduce symptoms of depression
Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins,
which can boost your mood in two ways. Firstly, endorphins stimulate a positive
feeling similar to the effects of morphine; with vigorous exercise this can
produce a ‘runner’s high’, feelings of euphoria – but even with mild to
moderate exercise the effect can still be noticed and can produce an energised
feeling, so that, counter-intuitively, getting exercise can give you the
feeling that you have more energy to tackle other tasks. The second way in
which endorphins can help, is that they diminish the perception of pain – so if
you are experiencing pain (assuming it’s not linked to the activity of walking)
then the release of endorphins has an analgesic effect which can help reduce
the discomfort you experience.
3. Walking can help you manage your thinking
Walking seems to help my brain work differently. That’s my experience – that somehow the act of movement stimulates my mind to work in a different way, and so if I’ve been ruminating about something where my thoughts just go round and round the same circuit, getting out there moving somehow shifts them off the train tracks (I’m not saying they never jump back on again, but a little derailing does help).
This may be because doing something physical requires a certain amount of attention by the brain – even if it seems pretty much instinctive – and therefore there’s a shift in focus which reshuffles everything else that’s going on in there. Indeed, as well as stimulating endorphins, as mentioned above, walking can alleviate the impact of cortisol – the stress hormone – by allowing its release through the body, which can reduce anxiety symptoms such as racing or intrusive thoughts.
4. Walking puts you in a different space
Well, duh, of course it does! It makes sense that the environment that you’re in is going to have an effect on your mood. Just think for a moment about how you’d feel if you’re sitting in a room with no windows and the walls painted grey, compared to sitting in a sunny space with a view over a sparkling sea. Where you are can also have less obvious effects connected to your (sometimes unconscious) associations – perhaps being in your house recalls a big argument that you just had with someone close to you, or all the maintenance tasks that you need to get done, for example.
Ideally I’d transport myself into the bluebell wood I mentioned earlier, in the blink of an eye. But it doesn’t need to be that extreme a contrast. Shifting yourself out of the space that you’re in can help shift your mindset. You can try this by simply going outside and consciously imagining those worries or preoccupations lifting off your shoulders and floating off into the greater space that surrounds you. I’m not pretending that they’re going to be gone forever, but allowing their release for even a short period of time can help boost your mood and improve your resilience to deal with them when they return.
5. Walking can help you connect with others
Walking with someone can give you the opportunity to talk about things that are bothering you in a neutral environment. For some people, ‘being alongside’ as they talk can be easier than talking about a difficult subject face to face. It can be a really helpful way of offloading – as with the last point, you can ‘let all this stuff out’ into the wider space rather than in the confines of a room. Or the flipside – when you’re walking with someone it’s OK not to talk, too, and just being in company with someone can improve your psychological health by meeting your need for human contact. Humans are social animals and we need to connect.
Walking can be a way of making new contacts and friends – for example through walking groups. There are many of these around the country geared to all ages and abilities, for example, where I live there is a fantastic local organisation that runs wellbeing walks. There’s some links at the bottom of this article.
At a basic level, walking helps you connect with others, in the opportunity it gives to say hello, smile, nod to the people that you pass as you’re out. Even these little contacts have a positive effect on your wellbeing and to a fundamental need for recognition by others.
6. Walking can help you connect with yourself
In contrast to the social benefits, walking can also help you to soothe yourself. Getting out for a walk allows the opportunity to take some time for yourself and pay attention to how you are away from the hurly-burly of whatever else is going on in your day. This isn’t just about escaping from stressful situations by absenting yourself from them – although that may also be relevant – but more about taking a few moments to notice how you are, in the moment, as you walk.
Walking can give you a chance to be mindful, for example by
bringing your attention to the movement of your arms, legs, feet, and noticing
any stiff or sore points. By walking mindfully you can connect to the
environment around you, as well as your body, and give yourself a rest, even
briefly, from what’s going on in your head. There’s a link to a mindful walking
7. Walking can be a way for you to commit to caring for yourself
There is lots of information around on how exercise is good for you mentally and physically……‘not getting enough exercise’ can become another stick for us to beat ourselves up with. But equally, the way we exercise often changes through our lives as our bodies change, and sometimes it is only when we experience an injury that we realise that our bodies aren’t machines that we can just keep on pushing.
Walking is a non-aggressive way of getting exercise. It gets the heart going, the blood pumping, the limbs moving, and with less impact on your joints and muscles than running or working out in the gym. It can help you sleep better, especially with the added effect of getting out in the fresh air. As we age, and if we have other added issues (physical or emotional), our bodies take longer to recover from illness or injury. You’re less likely to experience an injury when out walking than with most other forms of exercise. Yes, you might want to run a marathon – but perhaps your body isn’t ready for that yet. Rather than noticing what you can’t do, in walking perhaps you could look after your body; by valuing your body you are sending a subliminal message to yourself that you are important.
The equality of walking
Walking is cheap. It doesn’t require a gym membership. You don’t need to be an athlete. A little is better than none. If you’re a wheelchair-user you can still get the benefits of being outside, though you may not have as much opportunity for physical exertion. Even in a city you can connect with the natural world…….through gardens, and trees, and birds.
It’s important to recognise that you may not be well enough, physically or mentally, to walk at the moment, in which case reading this blog may well be frustrating! If this is the case the last thing I want to do is add to your burden. Walking isn’t possible for everyone, and if you’re not sure, I suggest you check with your GP. There are other ways that you can look after yourself and prioritise your needs, to your own level of physical, mental and emotional ability right now, and listening to your body may the best way to get some clue as to what those ways might be.
How can I motivate myself to walk?
With the above in mind, if you’re not walking at the moment and would like to but are struggling to find time or motivation to do it, here are some suggestions:
Be realistic and start small. Don’t push
yourself to get out for an hour’s walk every day. If time pressures are a
factor, start by fitting small walks into your day – 5 minutes after lunch, or
getting off the bus a stop early.
Do it with someone else. Buddy up with a friend
or join a group if you think making a plan with someone else will help motivate
you. I’m hoping to launch a walk-and-talk therapy service soon, to offer the option
of counselling while walking.
Focus on you. Don’t compare yourself with what
others are doing. You don’t need to compete with anyone – even yourself. Take
each day as it comes. One day where you get out for a walk is one day more than
Most importantly – be kind to yourself.
Sometimes you won’t feel like going outside your door, and if that happens
allow yourself to recognise that that is just one day, and that tomorrow may
well be different.
If I reflect for a moment on what walking means to me, so many things come up. When I walk I have space to get a little distance from whatever is going on, right now, in my life. Sometimes small things that I experience while I’m out walking can make a real difference to my day – hearing the first swifts of the summer screaming overhead, for example, can bring me a fleeting moment of joy that I reflect on throughout the day.
I feel connected to the rest of the world by the response of
my senses to what’s around me, whether that be the sound of the sea or the
taste of wild garlic I pick for my dinner. I feel connected to people, partly
through encountering them when I’m walking, but also because some walks trigger
memories of other people in my life, including those no longer alive, and for
that I am grateful. All these myriad, sometimes tiny, sometimes fleeting
experiences as I walk combine to……to what? Well, usually, to make me feel, in
some way, better.
Searching online for ‘stress management’ brings up A LOT of advice and tips. Sometimes in itself that can be stress-inducing – “Oh bloody hell all the things I should be doing / need to do before I’ll feel better!” – which can add to the sense of pressure we feel.
My aim is to, first of all, reassure you that stress responses are normal – there isn’t anything wrong with you; and secondly, to remind you that you can do something about how you feel, and it’s OK to start small. You don’t need to get self-care right all the time. If you’re feeling stressed, the last thing you need is to think that there is yet another thing you have to fit into your day, or ‘get on top of’.
What is stress?
Well, it’s a bit hard to define because the word stress is used to describe both a cause and a symptom. People talk about being under stress, or feeling stressed, or having workplace stress. What I mean here by stress is the reactions that we have to what we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) as difficult or challenging situations or environments.
Stress symptoms are the body’s reaction to feeling threatened, when hormones are released that allow it to act so as to prevent getting hurt – the ‘fight/flight’ response. The heart rate increases, muscles tense ready for action, blood pressure rises (to get the blood where it needs to go), breathing speeds up. But there are very few situations in the modern world where we need to fight a bear or escape from a lion, so while a stress response causing you to slam on the brakes to stop hitting a bus is useful, a stress response to being asked to work an extra shift at work isn’t. Those tense muscles and racing heart become a problem when they can’t find an outlet.
What causes a stress reaction in one person may not affect another. Look at two people in one workplace doing the same job; one of them might not be able to sleep at night because of work stress; the other might be quite happy to go home at the end of the day and forget completely about work until 9am the next morning.
I’m not saying that if you feel stressed by work you’re
somehow to blame – after all, maybe you work for a shitty employer. Maybe you
work in a very pressured environment and there are lots of stressors around
you. Maybe there’s just a hell of a lot going on in your life. But – you can
cultivate a different attitude to most stressors. It doesn’t remove the pressures around you, but
crucially, it helps you feel better –
you’re alleviating stress.
Me and stress – old friends
What do I know about it? Well, I’ve a history of stress –
essentially workplace stress, I guess, though I never defined it. My feelings
of stress, as they built up, became intertwined with anxiety and depression,
and my typical pattern would be to withdraw when I felt under pressure. I felt
that contact with other people would prevent me from being able to hide that I
wasn’t coping and I needed to maintain control at all costs. ‘Coping’ is a key
word here; clearly I was coping – in
that I was still functioning day-to-day – but ‘coping’ wasn’t a happy place.
I would overthink things – trying to think myself out of a situation; I would distract myself thinking I might ‘forget’ how rubbish I felt; and I sort of lived in fear of the future, feeling that things could only get worse. Every now and then I would have a meltdown when the rigid keep-clinging-on-at-all-costs shell just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and that would give a brief relief until things started building up again.
The knowledge that other people, working in the same,
demanding, environment as me WEREN’T stressed didn’t help; understanding it was
my problem that I needed to do something about – no matter how supportively
expressed – added to my sense that I really wasn’t able to function properly as
How I de-stressed myself
So how did I change it? Various things – too many to remember. Some were small, but there was something about getting a little movement that started the ‘change’ ball rolling, until over time it gathered momentum.
I asked for help. I went to the doctor and got a
prescription for anti-depressants. To this day I don’t know how much of the
effect was the drug and how much the realisation that I could ask for help, but
my mood lifted enough that I was able to make use of a great CBT workshop with
a local community organisation, which helped me look at how my thought patterns
would get into a downward spiral – and how reflecting on these could help shift
me out of disaster mode. This worked for a while, and when I slipped back again
it didn’t take me as long to reach out – I’d done it before. I started to talk
to people about how I was feeling – even my family!
There were a couple of major events that happened in my life which jolted me enough to shift my priorities slightly – stressors in themselves, but they pushed me to check the reality of how much what I was stressing about really mattered. I was also lucky to have really solid support from my partner.
And then, longer-term, I was offered the opportunity of a counselling skills course and that pushed the ‘change ball’ onto a different path. Surprisingly, I found it OK that I had an extra thing in my week – because it shifted my focus slightly, and some of the other stuff began to look a bit smaller.
The greater understanding that I had of how I dealt with problems enabled me not only to make slight changes, but crucially my own therapy also helped me notice when I was giving it that double-whammy of beating myself up for beating myself up! Psychotherapy training is great for helping you understand the ‘why’, but in personal counselling I started to heal the anxious child within me, who made those decisions to protect me, and I supported them to make different ones.
It’s that which has enabled me to look after myself for no other reason than because I AM IMPORTANT. And even being able to write that in a blog is a sign of what a change there has been. I’m not going to pretend I never feel stressed now. But I recognise it and I take steps and I feel better sooner. I take some of the small steps that I’ve outlined below and in doing so it reinforces the commitment I’ve made to look after myself.
STOP right there!
It can be the hardest thing to STOP! To stop and take stock. Stress can produce a sense of an unstoppable hamster-wheel that speeds up and escalates and encourages you to believe that if you can only do MORE, run FASTER, work HARDER then you’ll feel more in control. But stopping really can help. If you’ve stopped long enough to read this blog: Well done! That’s a start!
The 10 stress management tips I’m sharing here are things which help me. I hope some of them may be useful for you.
Stress Tip No. 1: Manage your time gently
When you feel stressed you might have a sense that there’s just not enough time to get things done. But often we contribute to this by setting ourselves to-do lists that are simply unachievable in the misguided idea that we’ll get more done that way, and this adds to the sense of pressure.
The sense of achievement at having successfully met a goal can be energising, and the positive attitude gained from this leads to us being more ready for the next task. So, if you are a list person, write your normal to-do list. Then put aside HALF the items on it; given that you won’t have time to do them anyway, they can be moved to another day.
Then take ONE most important item from the list and focus on
that at your most productive time of day. For me, this is first thing in the
morning before coffee-time. For others it might be in the evening. But the most
important thing deserves your most attentive time.
If you still didn’t manage everything on your halved to-do
list – golly, you’re really putting
pressure on yourself. Try cutting it down further. Be a bit gentler with
yourself, huh? You’re only human.
Stress Tip No. 2: Practice saying No
This is a tough one for a lot of people. I get that, it’s
hard for me too. And it’s hard because most of us know that this is an
essential skill; when we say No we might feel guilty, when we don’t say No we
feel ‘bad at self-care’.
So I don’t want to dwell on the validity of saying No – that actually, only saying Yes to the things that we have time and inclination to do well is better both for us and the person asking us. Instead I’m suggesting that you notice what you could have said No to, and reflect on how you might say No next time, and that you start with the small stuff, those you feel ‘least guilty’ about. Saying No to small requests might feel it won’t make that much difference to your stress levels, but the important thing is getting yourself in the habit.
And when you say No, don’t make excuses why. At the very most just say “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” You don’t need excuses to look after yourself.
Stress Tip No. 3: Slow your breathing
Breathing deeply is beneficial for releasing stress, partly because the ‘fight or flight’ mode that we find we’re in if we’re stressed tenses everything up and we end up breathing high in the chest. However, taking deep belly breaths can be almost impossible for some people if they’ve got out of practice doing this, and it can actually be triggering for some people who have a history of trauma.
Instead, start by focusing on slowing your breath. Deep breathing can come later. Next time you’re feeling under pressure, stop for a moment. If necessary set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. You can afford 5 minutes.
Sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
Close your eyes, or look down at your hands.
Imagine yourself somewhere that you find peaceful or relaxing.
Breathe in for a count of four, then out for a count of four.
Notice the feeling of the breath moving in through the nose and out through the mouth.
If you find your mind drifting to your to-do list, just notice that, and say “Yep, I know you’re there” and then bring it back to that peaceful place.
Stress Tip No. 4: Drink water
Dehydration can increase levels of cortisol (the stress
hormone). Essentially dehydration is stressful for the body because it’s
deprived of what it needs to function well. Dehydration affects the flow of
blood to the brain which can lead to feeling fatigued. Sometimes we can also
mistake hunger for thirst – so if you feel like you need a snack to keep going,
take a drink of water first.
Perhaps you forget to stop long enough in your busy day to even notice that you’re thirsty. So before you settle down to work, get yourself a big glass of water and put it somewhere within your line of vision. That way you’re more likely to notice it’s there. If you work on the run, take a bottle and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take a drink. Even stopping for the few seconds it takes to reach out and take a sip will shift your body position slightly, which is good too.
Stress Tip No. 5: Reflect on what you ‘need’ rather than what you ‘should’
What do I mean by this? Well, one of the things that we can put ourselves under pressure with, is all the things we think we should be doing. I look out for that word ‘should’, because it’s a real signal that someone is self-critical and has high expectations of themselves. Next time you think to yourself “I should be doing X”, reword it to “I COULD be doing X” – this way there’s less of a burden on you.
Then ask yourself if you WANT to do it. Ditch one ‘should’ from your week and add one thing that you enjoy – whether that be spending time alone, or spending time with people – whatever you need. Trust your instinct and if you hear a little voice saying you’re being selfish, say “I hear that you think I’m being selfish and that makes you feel anxious. Right now I’m looking after myself.” Because you are.
Stress Tip No. 6: Take a walk
The symptoms of stress are a flight or fight response which
is geared towards activity – preparing you to run away or to defend yourself.
Often people find that a really good workout after a stressful day can release
a lot of the tension they were feeling.
The thing is, we can get caught up in what we’re constantly being told about optimum levels of exercise. All I want to say here is “A little is better than none”. If you keep telling yourself you ‘should’ join a gym or go to Zumba classes but you just don’t know where to fit it in, you’re piling more pressure on yourself. Instead, start by fitting a 5 minute walk into your day. 5 minutes after your lunch or after a particularly difficult phone call. You’ve got time to do that. You can build it up from there, but with that 5 minutes you’ve made an active decision to look after yourself. Well done!
Stress Tip No. 7: Cushion your day
Create a buffer around your day by detaching from your phone
for 30 minutes at the start and end of your day. Is the first thing you do on
waking up check your phone? When your mind and body are still coming to, you
are more open and vulnerable, and seeing upsetting news stories, or being
reminded of family politics, can affect you more deeply.
Being constantly connected can add to that a feeling of time
pressure, that you need to ‘keep up with things’ – but ask yourself, what you
are checking your phone FOR? Think about ways that you can take care of
yourself without resource to the outside world. Perhaps you could start your
day with a 5-minute meditation. Or read a book with your breakfast. It’s OK to
protect yourself at your most vulnerable times.
Stress Tip No. 8: Do things that make you laugh
Laughter can help you relax; a big belly laugh gets the whole body moving, can dissipate some of those accumulated stress hormones and relieve tension. Laughter has many physical and mental benefits and is a way of strengthening connections with other people
Watch a silly film or TV programme. Reconnect with someone who makes you laugh. Even just pretending to smile and laugh has been proven to have health benefits – why not try that right now?
Stress Tip No. 9: Focus
Inner Relationship Focusing is a practice that can help you manage your stress levels. It encourages you to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them and it’s surprising how that alternative to trying to push a feeling away can really bring a change in itself.
As an example, imagine you’re feeling a tightness across
your chest as you worry about getting a piece of work finished. You try and
ignore it because you need to get on with that bit of work! Instead, you can
sit and pay attention to that tight feeling and develop a relationship with it.
You get a sense of what it’s trying to tell you (this feeling might be
associated with something you internalised as a child on having to get things
done or working hard). And because you’ve ‘listened’ to it, it relaxes a little
and lets you carry on with what you’re doing in a less stressed way. There are
similar practices and methods; Focusing is one that works for me and you can
teach yourself to do it with free resources (see the end of this article).
Stress Tip No. 10: Find a therapist
OK, you got me – therapy isn’t a quick 5-minute stress tip. But you can spare 5 minutes to look for one! Speaking to someone unconnected with the rest of your world can be really beneficial to get an understanding of why you are feeling so stressed – and what you discover might surprise you.
There may be good reasons that you are feeling stressed, especially
if you’ve had a number of changes in your life in a short space of time, and a
counsellor can support you to recognise that what you’re feeling is normal and
On the other hand, often we look for reasons outside us to blame our feelings of stress on, and while there can be all sorts of very real external factors that contribute to why we feel under pressure, actually working on how we manage our response to these is more helpful in the long run. And we can take control of our own behaviour and responses – whereas we can’t always control what goes on around us.
When counselling, I often encourage people to focus on what
they are doing well rather than what they’re not doing, and to consider how they can be kind to themselves,
which can then resource them better to deal with the strains of everyday
living. Get in touch with me if you want to find out more.
These are just some suggestions for managing feelings of stress. There are plenty of others and there are additional references and sources of information below. But start small; if you give yourself the target of a major life change to ‘escape’ stress, you may be setting yourself up for failure.
Remember – stress reactions don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. But if you don’t pay attention to them they can take over your life and drain it of its colour. While external factors contribute, stress responses are an internal process, and you can make choices to do things differently and take more control. You will sometimes slip back – and that’s OK, because if you’ve made changes once, you can do it again, and practice helps you get better at it.
This week I’ve been thinking about transitions and changes. This is partly because of a transition in my own life – I’m about to move house and move country, and having done it (in the opposite direction) two years ago, I’m keen to acknowledge the effect that this is likely to have on me. And someone very close to me has also had a very big change in their life, and so it’s brought into sharper focus the impact that change can have on us.
I wonder whether there are certain changes that culturally we ‘expect’ to have a bigger impact than others – whether we’re ‘allowed’ to be rocked more by one event than another, and in the same vein whether we therefore permit ourselves to ‘feel’ more in response to one change than to another. If I apply this to myself, when my mum died, I think I was really good at grieving, for want of a better way of putting it. Somehow it seemed uncomplicated; I’d got lots of messages from people that it was OK to start crying at random moments (and I did), I sought out hugs from people (sometimes to their surprise), I accepted offers of help gratefully. On the other hand, when I moved to another country, while part of me thought “this might be a bit tricky”, another part was very much focused on the idea that I was lucky to have this opportunity and therefore it would be ungrateful or weak to be discombobulated by the experience – viewing myself as an entitled middle-class snowflake fussing about a first world problem.
Thankfully I’ve got better in recent years at voicing my discomfort, and a number of conversations with people helped me recognise that, from an outsider’s perspective, stopping working for the first time in my adult life, leaving my home, friends and family and moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language, had the potential to be quite challenging. That didn’t quiet the voice inside me, that told me I ‘should’ be better at living the dream – “Oh for goodness sake, embrace the challenge!” – but it did help me pay attention to what fears or anxieties that voice might be trying to drown out, and to learn a lesson about allowing myself to find the change difficult.
These are fairly significant changes. But changes that, on the face of it, may ‘look’ small, can still have a big effect, yet we have a tendency to dismiss them – “it’s not worth getting upset about”. The problem is that in telling yourself something isn’t worth getting upset about, there’s an implicit message that by being upset, there’s something wrong with you. So then not only are you feeling uncomfortable, you’re feeling ‘bad’ for feeling uncomfortable – a double whammy.
There can be all kinds of reasons why you might find a particular change difficult. It can upset your routine, which is what gives structure to how you function day to day. It can tap into deep-seated fears or decisions that you made as a small child of how your life ‘should’ be – decisions that you might not be aware of consciously but that direct how you live your life as an adult. It can trigger memories of past experiences that were traumatic in some way. (Years ago I remember getting a small promotion at work. I knew I ‘should’ seize this as a career opportunity, but the offer triggered memories of an earlier experience in another company where I had been given more responsibility, little support and eventually was disciplined because I was isolated and didn’t know how to speak up. Is it any wonder I didn’t welcome the promotion with open arms?)
Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to think of any change that doesn’t bring some loss with it. A new baby is cause for celebration, but it can also mean a loss of freedom and control for the parents. So there may be a part of us that is experiencing grief, even when a change may be perceived as positive.
It’s important, too, to pay attention to the cumulative impact of changes. In my example of moving countries, there were a number of linked changes – job, social connections, language, environment – but sometimes we experience lots of little unconnected changes that, added together, can really rock our foundations. Maybe you move jobs. Oh, and your best friend just had a baby. They couldn’t be around for you when your pet died two months ago, or when your sister moved away from the area. We might see some changes as positive or dismiss them as unimportant – but that can mean ignoring or minimising the effect they have on our equilibrium. Imagine yourself standing in a boat, and having three waves knocking into you from three different directions, and how that throws you off balance. It’s all very well people saying ‘the only thing that doesn’t change is change’; knowing that doesn’t help when you’re in the middle of it! I’m not saying change is bad – sometimes things are as they are, and we can’t stop change – but acknowledging the effect of it can help us adjust.
Just take a moment, now, to reflect on a change that you may have experienced – big or small – and to sit for a few minutes with your mind on that change to see what comes up for you. What is or was the impact of that change on you emotionally, physically, mentally? Do you allow yourself to feel that impact or do you push it away? Can you offer yourself some compassion for feeling off-kilter? Is there something you can do, for yourself, gently, to ease that feeling?
If you give yourself a hard time when you find things difficult, therapy can really help you unpick those feelings that you feel you ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling and can give you more understanding of, and compassion towards yourself. It is OK to find change hard and to take care of yourself through a transition. Maybe you can give yourself permission to be wobbly.
This week I’ve been fighting a bug. (You don’t need to feel
sorry for me, I’m doing a great job at that.) As I decided each day whether to
go ahead with client appointments I’ve been reflecting on what was The Best
Thing To Do – for me and for my clients. Never an easy one to figure out, this
is even less clearcut with online work when the factor of “Is it in the best
interest of my clients to be infected with my snotty bug?” is removed. And I
don’t have the additional effort of hauling myself through the cold to a rented
room in the city.
I’ve been remembering an article I read when I first started working with clients (alas, I can’t remember the reference) which spoke of the ethical requirements of self-care. That as therapists we have a professional obligation to look after ourselves so that we are in the best possible position to look after others. At the time I read it this was gold for me; if I had a duty to look after myself it meant that I would do it, as I could circumnavigate the internal messages that told me I was being self-indulgent by doing so. possible.
The downside of my interpretation of this requirement is that my tendency to ‘do things right’ then kicks in, in the area of self-care, too; I find myself asking myself if I’m short-changing clients by working when I’m not 100% in peak physical and mental condition (i.e. coming down with a cold). That battles against the belief that my clients need me, that I’m letting them down by cancelling. (As counsellors we sometimes forget that our clients continue to live and function pretty well the other 167 hours of the week that we’re not with them.)
I’m sure my perspective is skewed by being inside the therapy world, but sometimes it feels to me that counsellors are particularly demanding of themselves and each other in the need to do things right. Counselling attracts people who care, who want to do well for others, who want to ‘make people happy’. But sometimes we can be blinded to the value of making mistakes, of having to make a judgment call in a fuzzy situation. Black and white decision making is so much easier!
Self-care isn’t all chocolate cake and scented candles (as
pointed out in an article I shared a month or two ago). In this context – of
whether or not to cancel appointments – it’s not all about feeling sorry for
myself and curling up under a blanket. Even where I may have felt anxious in
anticipation, often I feel energised after a client appointment – something
about being so focused on the client, about the privilege of sharing their
world, about the magic that happens in therapy. Is depriving myself of that
feeling self-care? The total focus that I bring to a counselling session means
that sometimes I feel as I’m ‘coming back into the world’ afterwards. It’s
therefore an opportunity for me to be centred on something other than feeling
under-the-weather – surely a form of self-care?
And as therapists we often feel uncomfortable talking about
the reality that our work is also our livelihood – we don’t like the idea that
we’re charging people a fee for ‘being nice to them’. (NB: GuthrieTherapy
recently helpfully reframed this as “therapists are people you pay to teach you
how to care for yourself”.) We need to make a living, and I would be dishonest
pretending that potential loss of earnings isn’t a factor – financial survival
is self-care too. There’s a practical business aspect to this though: we need
to be good enough therapists otherwise our clients won’t come back. If we’re
putting ourselves under pressure or making a habit of working when we’re not up
to it, that won’t help the bottom line.
All of the above comes with the caveat that we need to not push ourselves to extremes – either of overwork or of self-care! As an example; today I felt I was functioning at 85%; I went ahead with the appointment; I did feel I had more energy afterwards but I knew also that I had recovery time, a buffer of a few hours before the next client.
I have worked in jobs where I would go in when I was feeling rubbish – ‘presenteeism’ we called it in the HR world – because there was stuff that I could do that took less of my energy, and because I felt I had to look like I was keen. I’ve also worked in jobs where I really needed to be 100% fit to cope with the demand of the role. Being self-employed the only person I’m fooling is myself and I just need to make a judgment and make the best of the situation.
As a therapist part of my work is modelling behaviour to the
clients I work with. What am I modelling if I feel like shit and go to work
anyway for the sake of my client? That the other person is always more
important than the self, that I have to rescue them? Instead I need to check
each day as it comes with the information that I have; am I fit enough to work?
And check at the end of the day; was I a good-enough counsellor? If some days I
decide I would have been better taking the day off, that’s information for the
future. And that way I’m modelling what it is to be human, that there are very
few black and white decisions and that being human is good enough.
***As a footnote: the week after I wrote this, the bug really kicked in, totally flooring me. At one point I started to wonder if I would ever be well again. This was a good reality-check to my musings; there was no way I could have worked in that state – I could barely even think, let alone ‘focus on my client’. It was a reminder that sometimes there are black and white decisions!